Article by Karen Hardie, Certified Herbalist, Health and Wellness Coach
Does the term Holiday Season fill you with joy? Or maybe dread? Perhaps a combination of both? Stress fills our daily lives. Add on all the Holiday extras like extra busy days and nights, extra spending, for some extra sadness and for most there are temptations around every kitchen corner. No wonder the Holiday Season can often leave us feeling depressed and depleted. How would you like to have some extra tools to get through it all this year?
There are some simple steps you can take to help you manage the stress of the Holidays, or any day, a little more effectively.
Simple Step #1 Deep Breathing
You may think this is an airy-fairy kind of tip and I urge you to reconsider! Deep breathing is an ancient practice, most highly revered within the practice of yoga and Eastern philosophies. Modern science is confirming a physiologic connection between deep breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and restore part of the nervous response that we want to encourage.
The great Andrew Weil starts and ends his days with a series of 4-8 deep breaths. He uses the technique with his patients, encouraging them to use deep breathing as a tool to better handle stressful situations that may arise, manage cravings, and generally improve mood.
He claims excellent results for anxiety with this technique. The breathing exercises can change how a person responds to stress. Dr. Weil demonstrates the technique on his site
I especially like this option because it is absolutely free to anyone who wants to use it!
Deep breathing has no known side-effects or contraindications. No chance it will interfere with your medications. It can be done anywhere and anytime. Quietly and discreetly.
Whether you develop a daily practice or not, it might be wise to develop a habit of using a few deep breaths during times of great stress. I can feel a difference when I do.
Simple Step #2 Herbal Nervine Teas
Nervine describes plants with a soothing and often nourishing action to the nerves.
There is something deeply enriching about sipping aromatic herbals in a hot water extract, commonly known as tea. For the following herbal nervine teas we are more specifically making an infusion.
Infusion method of making tea:
Leaves or flowers of a plant are covered with almost boiling water and allowed to steep from 2-10 minutes, or up to overnight for a stronger infusion. If the water has come to a boil, let it “settle down” a couple of minutes before pouring over herbs, so it cools a bit. 170-185 degrees is the ideal temperature range for an infusion.
The act of making a pot of tea in itself has inherent healing power. When you inhale the aroma as it steeps, take in the cozy warmth and all the while keep a mind to your wellness, you invite calm and reflection into your moment. While any tea may be comforting or even nourishing, there are particular herbals that are renown for helping us unwind.
4 nervine tea options that are relatively easy to find
Holy Basil, Ocimum sanctum
Also known as Tulsi, this delicious tea is especially useful in managing stress. Holy Basil or Tulsi is commonly found in groceries and is even more commonly found throughout India where it is sacred and often consumed fresh. We mostly consume it dried in the US, though I encourage you to grow Tulsi if you have a little sunny space, to enjoy your own fresh supply.
Holy Basil is known to normalize and strengthen adrenal function, evidenced by its ability to reduce cortisol levels and stabilize blood sugar. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is associated with all types of health problems so reducing levels can be really helpful to overall health.
Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla
I believe chamomile is one of the most underrated herbs. Perhaps because it is so commonly available at restaurants and groceries, we tend to dismiss it as insignificant. And while Chamomile IS mild, and therefore safe for almost everyone, it is also effective for a number of common challenges. Herbalists classify Chamomile as a mild nervine relaxant, meaning it will calm and soothe your nerves. It can help with sleep, but it usually takes several cups to do so.
More importantly, and in smaller amounts (1-2 cups), Chamomile lends a gentle and supportive boost to the nerves. Chamomile is traditionally used to soothe an upset tummy. This carminative action is thought to be in part due to anti-spasmodic activity. Chamomile is especially helpful to dispel gas, making it perfect for digestive upset associated with stress. See why I think it’s underrated?
For a review of some of the research on Chamomile check out this Pubmed reference titled Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future.
Classically thought of as a children’s herb, Lemon Balm is a traditional favorite for cold and flu. Lemon Balm is used to reduce symptoms, reduce the duration, and simultaneously lift the spirits. The lemony smell and gentle nature of Lemon Balm makes a wonderful bath for children and adults. You might infuse a big pot to drink and reserve a couple of cups for a warm bath.
Similarly to Chamomile, Lemon Balm is used traditionally as a carminative, making it great for cold or flu with digestive symptoms. More modern research shows that the feel good qualities of Lemon Balm are likely linked to an inhibition of the enzyme that breaks down GABA, or GABA-transaminase. GABA is the feel good neuro-transmitter our own body makes. Lemon Balm’s inhibition of the enzyme results in higher levels of feel good GABA. We believe this impact on GABA is linked with the uplifting quality of this beloved plant.
For more on the GABA-transaminase inhibition and additional information on Lemon Balm. Check out Awakening From Alzheimer’s article:
Wild Oatstraw, Avena sativa
The very same plant that gives us oats for breakfast, also gives us milky seed pods and wild oatstraw, all very nutritious and all with a mild strengthening effect on the nerves. The infusion of wild oatstraw is one of the gentlest and most nourishing herbal teas for the nervous system, working best over time. Eating whole (steel cut) oats for breakfast can provide some support to the nervous system. For even greater effect use the wild oatstraw as a tea or the young milky oat seed as tincture. Herbalists generally tout the milky seed for acute stress and the infused oatstraw for building strength over time. Every part of the Avena sativa plant is rich in vitamins and minerals including calcium and magnesium.
Other notable herbal nervines include:
Skullcap, Passionflower, California Poppy, Lavender, Linden, Hops, Verbena, Valerian
For most of us, herbal nervine teas make a great alternative to caffeine and sugar-laden drinks for the whole family! Make a big pot to refrigerate and enjoy for up to 2 days. For variety, try adding fun herbal or food flavorings like organic orange peel, a cinnamon stick, and/or a touch of local wildflower honey to make it interesting. Enjoy your soothing tea hot or iced.
Each of the featured herbals are on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list of approved supplements by the FDA, meaning generally safe for both children and adults.
Of course, always check with your medical practitioner or pharmacist about contraindications with any medication you might be taking. With any food, spice or herb, there is a slim chance for allergic reaction. Whenever you add a new food or herb into your diet, best start with a small amount and make sure it is working for you. Use common sense here and back off if something is causing any unwanted side effects for you.
Simple Step #3: Add Adaptogens
The term Adaptogen was coined in 1947 to describe a plant with ability to increase overall resistance to stress, and may have been inspired by vast amounts of early research on some Eastern European plants like Eleutherococcus senticossus, formerly known as Siberian Ginseng. Indeed, research on Eleuthero continues into modern times: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=eleutherococcus+russia
Anyone under stress may benefit by the nutritive and tonic effect adaptogens provide. Adaptogens support adrenal health, which means Holy Basil is in this class. However, most of the adaptogens are roots such as the Elethero and the Ginsengs. Since stress can often lead to compromises in immune response, how great is it that Adaptogens are also shown to improve our overall immune system health? The broad actions on multiple systems contributes to Adaptogen’s stress-busting activity on physical, microbial, mental, or emotional stresses.
To make a tea with adaptogenic plants that are roots (or any root, rhizome, seed or bark) be sure to use the decoction method.
Decoction method of tea making
Simmer the plant in water over low heat for 30-40 minutes, or longer for a stronger tea.
Guideline for amount of herbals for infusion or decoctions:
Typically use more if it is fresh, 1-2 Tablespoons per cup of water
For dried, use 1-2 teaspoons per cup of water
More or less adjusted for taste and desired strength
If all this tea making is just too much for you, herbal nervines and adaptogens can be found in liquid extract or capsule form. Look for products with whole plant extraction methods to get the broadest nutrients and activity. Or consider buying powders to add into food. (See Ashwaganda below).
Eleuthero, Eleutherococcus senticossus
This root has an affinity with those under constant stress and makes a wonderful rich tea.
Renown as a plant of the Vikings beloved for its strengthening action and its ability to promote endurance. Rhodiola might be a favorite because it tends to give a notable energy boost. Excellent overview published in the leading herbal journal Herbalgram:
Ashwaganda, Withania somnifera
A wonder plant with a growing body of research! Ashwaganda is a favorite tonic herb or food of India and recommended by many experts for help in managing a host of chronic illness. It is safe, has a very long history of use and plenty of supportive evidence to both safety and effectiveness. Most anybody can benefit from Ashwanda. According to the Chopra Center’s Jenna Saunders “Ashwagandha is classically taken as a fine powder mixed in honey or ghee.” https://chopra.com/articles/what-is-ashwagandha
Another herbal option that is also food! Who doesn’t want a little tonic/food/medicine mixed in a honey ball? If you are going no-carb, try ashwanda in almond butter or in your favorite energy ball recipe. Also, experiment with the other root powders like Eleuthero or Ginseng.
Other notable adaptogens include:
Holy Basil, Schisandra chinensis, Chinese, Korean and American Ginsengs (Panax spp.), Most medicinal Mushrooms including but not limited to: Reishi, Shitake, Maitake, Lions Mane, Chaga, Turkey Tail, and Poria, which is popular in China.
Simple Step #4: Exercise
An obvious addition to any stress management list is exercise, and you already know this so I will not belabor the point. Here are some reasons I think exercise cannot be overlooked!
- A mere 10 min of aerobic exercise will increase your metabolism for several hours.
- Benefits of exercise are measurable against countless health measures: improved mental clarity and parasympathetic responses included.
- Many people find that consistent exercise is their very best tool for handling stress, depression and anxiety.
- Sex could be called a form of exercise and stress release, and probably deserves its own category in this article. I will suffice to mention it as one stress relief option for healthy adults, either with a consenting partner or on your own.
- Exercise impacts the body as a whole, including the nervous system, cardiovascular, respiratory and hormones; all must integrate to coordinate exertion. This makes exercise, in a way, a manifestation of wholeness.
If exercise is not yet a part of your daily routine, consider a simple start! Commit to just 10 min of brisk walking each day! You can even walk in place, at home, if this is your best or only option to move. Put on some favorite upbeat music and move your arms and legs. You can add exercises such as knee lifts, low kicks, calf raises, and squats for even better results. 10 min a day can begin to make changes in how you feel pretty quickly. Before you know it, you’ll want to do more!
Simple Step #5: Essential Oils or Aromatherapy
Essential oils are the distilled volatile oils taken from plants typically by steam distillation. They are extremely concentrated, the scented part of plants that we easily recognize by smell. Many of them have calming effects on our nerves.
Because essential oils work through the sense of smell, they have a profound impact on our emotions and our nervous system, because both are intimately tied into smell. You do not take essential oils internally. Instead, you simply need to smell them! The aroma itself triggers a physiologic effect. If you use essential oils in a room diffuser, everyone who smells it can benefit by the relaxing and often uplifting properties. In addition to diffusers and nebulizers, there are some more affordable options such as small aroma lamps (heated by candle), room sprays or simply putting 1-3 drops on a tissue and inhaling. If you are out and about, and you know you might be under undue stress, take your bottle with you and simply open and inhale! That might be a good time to practice your deep breathing too.
Essential Oils with calming effects include: Lavender, Blue Chamomile, Roman Chamomile, Rose, Jasmine, Bergamot, Geranium, Neroli and Basil
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but a good place to start on oils that are easy to find. With the exception of Neroli, these are affordable options. Neroli can often be found in Jojoba or some other carrier oil to make it more affordable. Note: be sure to buy a therapeutic-grade true essential oil, not a cheap synthetic version. Please, external use only.
Take just a few minutes for self-care
In conclusion, I hope you are inspired to set aside some time each day for self-care. You deserve a few minutes to exercise, to make a pot of tea. Maybe even treat yourself to an aroma lamp on your desk at work! Perhaps you can choose a couple of Simple Steps that work with your life. After all, you know better than anyone else what will work best in your day.
About the Author
Karen Hardie began her herbal studies at age 19, studying at the renown California School of Herbal Studies and receiving a Certificate of Therapeutic Herbal Studies in 1991. She has been teaching and studying about herbs and nutrition ever since. Karen has worked as a Nutritional and Herbal Educator in a medical practice, as an Herbal Information Specialist for a well-known botanical company, and as an Account Executive for several top herbal and natural product companies. Karen is currently running Sweet River Wellness, an Asheville-based company dedicated to the prevention of chronic illness and seeking to make herbal resources available to all. Sweet River Wellness offers Health Coaching with a focus on herbals, a personalized healthy food grocery tour, and premium herbal products.